One of the reasons I sometimes shy away from the darker genres—horror, especially, but also some thrillers and mysteries—is my low threshold for hopelessness and the grim. Thus far, the stories in Crime Travel had all ended on a more-or-less hopeful note, which gave “Hard Return” by Art Taylor all the harder an edge when it delivered the final few moments of what definitely feels like a case of grim hopelessness.
That isn’t to say the story isn’t well written or well done. It is. It’s a tale about a man and a woman, both unnamed, and the man realizing he doesn’t know as much about her as he’d like, and pressing to learn more about her and her past. They’ve been dating, and things are progressing, after all, and he’d like to get to know her all the more. When she finally acquiesces, it’s almost done with sadness, which is his first inkling that something isn’t right.
What follows is her retelling him about the worst night of her life, and the worst former relationship and how it ended terribly… Or at least, she starts to, and as she spins the story, he finds himself quite literally caught up in it, until he finds himself in the role of a man she once dated after breaking up with a particularly violent ex, on the night the ex threatened to come over and kill her. The two are almost immediately on the run, and the man tries to get her to tell him what happens next, tries to figure out a way out of this memory before something terrible happens to her, all the while she fatalistically points out it always ends the same way. It’s not a pick-me-up kind of story, and as I said, it’s grim and hopeless, so if that sort of tale leaves you cold, be forewarned. It’s a very unique kind of time-travel, sort of “looping into someone else’s relived trauma,” but it’s very much exactly that: trauma.